I wrote this story in October 2006 for my mother’s old boss Sean who was publishing some stories about my mom in the Homeless Voice in Hollywood, FL where she worked.
By Esterina Messeder
Earliest Memory of My Mom
The earliest memory I have of my mother dates back to when I was three or four years old. I could not have been any older because the memory I have is in a home that we moved out of when I was four. I remember waking up one early morning, and from my bedroom I heard my parents fighting in the kitchen. I heard a plate crack, more screaming, and then my father slamming the door on his way out to where I assume was work. Then I heard the sobs. I waited until I was sure that my father was not coming back in the house, and made my way to the kitchen. Evidence of the argument was left behind by glass on the floor, eggs splattered on the wall, and the kitchen sink running. My mother was sitting on the floor against the left leg of the table with her head in her lap, crying loudly. She did not hear me come in. While I can not recall the exact words that were exchanged, I remember the gist of the conversation. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me she couldn’t stand my father. I asked her why she did not leave him (I had no concept of marriage or divorce), and she said that she never finished school and would not be able to take care of us kids on her own. I remember from that moment on I made a vow to myself to finish school and have the ability to take care of myself so I would not have to depend on a man.
Growing Years with Her
Over the next 15 years or so if I had to sum up my perception of my mother in one word it would be depressed. The image of her standing in the kitchen washing dishes, hunched over, with a cigarette hanging loosely from her lips, barefooted in a knee-length house dress is what comes to mind when I think of my childhood. I cannot say that there weren’t any happy times; I can distinctly remember a few. But only a few. She seemed so helpless against my father, so un-empowered, and so lonely. I could not help but NOT want to be like her when I grew up. I would fantasize about getting a job, getting her an apartment, and taking care of her so she would not have to depend on my father.
The Turning Point
But on July 9, 1993 when I was 17 years old everything changed. It was my brother Frankie’s 13th birthday and he wanted McDonalds for dinner. My parents, Frankie, and I were outside eating dinner in the backyard as a family in the early evening. My father started an argument with me about how if my current boyfriend didn’t give me a ring by the end of the year; I would have to break up with him. I argued that I didn’t want to get married young and that I wanted to go to school and have a job first. Well it seemed like whenever I talked what I thought was sense, my father would get mad because I didn’t agree with him. Sometimes it was just yelling, but more often than not there was violence involved and I would get hit. This particular evening it was the latter. As usual the next few minutes would be a blur of trying to shield myself from blows, my mother yelling in the background, and my brother(s) pulling my father off of me. But this time it was different. Only my brother Frankie was there and he didn’t pull my father off of me… he disappeared into the house. My mother tried unsuccessfully to pull him away while I cowered on the floor and was being beaten with a chair. My father just threw my mother to the ground. Then we heard Frankie’s faint voice from in the house telling us calmly that he had just called the police.
This was a monumental moment. No one had ever called the police before. A male and female officer came to the house, and my mother and I were required to go down to the police station to write a report. As a female officer was asking what happened, my mom was being her usual self by defending my father. It was at this time that I think my mother’s perception of the world changed. This woman looked my mother straight in the eye and said “I don’t want to hear any bullshit, look at your daughter, he toked her”. My mother was silent and I could actually see in her the realization that she had been living with a monster. On the way home that night she said told me that she can’t believe she never realized until now that she is not in control, and she promised me that things would change.
After that night things did change. I had a restraining order against my father so he was afraid of coming near me. That silly piece of paper really helped me to feel a bit more secure. But still, I could not wait to leave my house. The fighting continued, but I could tell that my mother was stronger and not quite so naïve anymore. As the weeks went by and turned into months, it came closer and closer to the time that I would be graduating high school and having to make a decision about my future. One evening in April 1994, I was in the car with my parents on the way home from seeing an accountant who did our taxes. My father was arguing with me about something or another, and I asked to get out of the car. I was only a mile or two from my house when I walked home alone that night thinking about my future. There was no money for college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and there was no way I could live home any longer. The logical solution was to join the military. When the thought first came to mind I pushed it away because I could not imagine leaving my mother alone with my father and with no other women in the house. But if I wanted my life to be different, if I wanted money to go to college some day and be able to get a decent job and experience so I could take care of myself and not depend on a man like my mother had to, I would need to take this risk and do something that no one in my family has done before… leave.
My Adult Years
Every day that passed since Frankie’s 13th birthday I watched my mother grow stronger and stronger. She started to have confidence; she was standing up straighter, and smiling more. When it came time for me to go to boot camp I knew she was sad, but she was so much stronger and happier than she had been just one year earlier. Over the next few years she really made some changes that I was so proud of. She lost some weight, she got dentures because she was so self conscious of her teeth, and most importantly she went back to school. She realized that even she could be happy and it became her mission in life to help others be happy.
But her real happiness did not come until just a few years ago when she picked up her life in the end of 2000 and spontaneously moved to Florida. I was sad to see her go, but I could hear such a difference in her voice. She was a new person. My mother got a job at a homeless shelter down in Florida. Though I never really understood what she was doing, I knew she was happy. She was no longer Cathy the mother, or Cathy the wife, she was Cathy – the person who is making a difference in the lives of people that could not otherwise help themselves. She had a reason to get up in the morning. She had confidence. And I can’t say it enough, but I know that she was a lot happier than she had ever been when she lived back home in New York.
Last summer in 2005 she came up to NY and CT where I live now to visit. While I was driving down to LaGuardia airport to pick her up, I was SO excited to see her. I was imagining her getting on the plane and being just as excited to see me. My husband was calling me every 15 minutes or so from home tracking her plane to let me know where it was in the sky. With every passing minute my anticipation grew. I was so nervous and excited. When her flight let off I watched all the passengers coming toward the baggage claim area. I was enthusiastically looking for her when a lady walked up to me and said “Esterina it’s so good to see you”… it was her! And she looked so different! So different. She was older, calmer, wiser, and far more beautiful than I ever remembered her. I almost didn’t believe this person in front of me was actually my mother. As we walked toward the baggage claim area and she was talking, her voice sounded the same and I realized how much she changed. I was in a complete daze. It took about 10 minutes or so for me to calm down from the excitement. I couldn’t wait to spend the weekend with her, and after she grabbed her suitcase we made our way out to the parking lot to my car. We were only walking a few minutes when she asked me to slow down. She was holding her side and told me that her shoulder hurt. At that moment my excitement disappeared. I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach, but I could not put my finger on it.
Over the next few days my family and I had a wonderful visit with her. First she came back to CT with me, and then we drove her down to New York where we visited with my brothers. She told us stories about all that she was doing in Florida and Venezuela, and all the plans she had, and people she was helping. I didn’t understand most of it, but I was proud of her and the life that she made for herself. But her shoulder hurt, and she had a nasty smoker’s cough, despite the fact that she’d quit smoking a few years earlier. I pushed the thoughts of these odd health things out of my mind, and I made a vow to myself that we should have her come up to visit every year.
It was the weekend when hurricane Wilma whipped into Florida last October. My husband, kids, and I were spending the weekend at my brother Frankie’s house carving pumpkins with our kids, and celebrating my brother Mario’s birthday a few days early. We ate, drank, and played the music loud. We never heard a phone ringing that evening. Mario went home on Saturday night and we all went to bed. Sunday morning Mario called really early to say that our grandmother had been calling us all night. I checked my messages, and sure enough she had. He said that my grandmother said something is wrong, and to please call my mother just to tell her we love her. Well, Mario called the homeless shelter where my mom was staying and talked to her boss Sean. Sean told him that the day before my mother went to the hospital and there was a mass on her lung. She got nervous, checked herself out of the hospital, and then got on the next flight out of Florida to Venezuela. After Mario called me to tell me the conversation he had with Sean, I hung up the phone and stood speechless in Frankie’s kitchen. The kids were running around, and my husband, Frankie, and Frankie’s girlfriend were all happily chatting away while making breakfast. When they realized that I had hung up the phone and was just standing there, all activity in the house seemed to come to a halt. They were all looking at me… waiting for me to say something, and I blurted out “Mom is dying of lung cancer”.
It was a stupid thing to say at the time because we had no idea what it was. There was just a mass on the lung. It could have been pneumonia. It could have been something else. It could have been a much more mild stage of cancer. But within the next few weeks after all different types of tests in the U.S. and Venezuela we learned that she did indeed have lung cancer. It was stage IV, small-cell lung cancer. These words meant nothing to me until I looked them up on the Internet and learned that the average life expectancy of someone with this type of cancer was only a few months. I was beside myself. I cried that whole first night, and made plans within in the next day or two to visit her by week’s end.
When I went down to Florida I got to see the life my mom had been living. I met all her friends, co-workers, and Sean. She was happy and surrounded by people who loved her. Though I would have liked her to be closer to the family at this crucial time, I saw that she was happy in Florida and thought there might be too many bad memories associated with staying in the New York area. The second day I was there we took a nap in the afternoon. My grandmother was also visiting and was ironing in the next room. My mother told me right after she woke up that she had a dream that my daughter was there with us, and there were 4 generations of women together in the same room.
I visited her quite a bit over the next few months and each time I learned a little bit more about her life. I learned about her experiences as a child growing up. I learned about her father (my grandfather) that I never knew. I learned about what she had been doing in Florida and the close relationship she developed with God. I got much closer to her with every visit, but each time I went down she looked more and more sick. The last time I visited in May, I took the kids down there with me on Mother’s Day weekend. I knew my grandmother and aunt were going to be there and I wanted to make her dream actually come true where there were four generations of women in the same room. I got to her apartment with the kids while she was out at the doctor. When she walked in she was so surprised! And so was I, but not in a good way. She had lost so much weight since the last time I’d seen her, and she had a cane. I acted normal, but inside I knew she wasn’t really getting better. Her right leg was in excruciating pain. The night before Mother’s Day we all went shopping and cooked a fabulous dinner. Everyone contributed a food item to the dinner. We pushed the dining room table to the middle of the room and sat around it for what would be our last big meal like this together (though we didn’t know it at the time). It was such a wonderful, relaxing evening. The next morning on Mother’s Day my mom had a hard time getting out of the bed. I took her to the emergency room where she was checked into the hospital. I didn’t know that when she walked into the ER that day with my kids and me, that it would be the last time she ever walked on her own again.
Last Trip back Home
Well to make what could be a long story short, she’d spent a lot of time in the hospital over the next few months. Sometime in mid-July her oncologist told my aunt that there was nothing more that he could do. He expected her to last only a few more weeks without treatment. I think all of our hearts broke that day. I was afraid to call my mother. I didn’t know what to say, or how to act. I was secretly relieved every time I called and no one picked up the phone. My mother called my grandmother the next day and asked her if she could “come home”. It was what we all wanted. Sean worked really hard to make her wish come true (God Bless him). I had no idea how bad off she was. When I heard she was too weak to travel on a commercial flight, and that it was dangerous to move her, I have to say that I was shocked that she deteriorated so quickly. After a LOT of cajoling, an air ambulance flight for her to come up to New Jersey was finally scheduled. I was SO happy. But I was nervous for her. It was only a year after the last time she came up this way to us. I was just as happy, but for completely different reasons. Again I imagined her getting on the plane and being just as excited to see us. This was going to be the last time I would be this excited to see my mother.
There were a few good days before her body started to shut down. She had a few good meals and had a few good laughs with us. She got here not a moment too soon. In the last few days we kept vigil by her bedside in my grandmother’s apartment. There was a lot of time to think about her and her life. I feel sad that such a large portion of it was spent miserable, but I am proud of her for turning it around and helping other people. With hospice’s encouragement I talked to her a lot even when she couldn’t talk back. I was surprised with my children’s ease around her. My 9-year old son was holding her hand, talking to her and kissing her. In her last few days and hours I told her how proud I was of her. I told her how she’d shaped my life and taught me through her life that being able to take care of yourself and not depend on anyone else is important. I wondered what she was thinking, what she was remembering. Did she remember the bad times? The day I saw her crying in the kitchen when I was three or four years old? Was she remembering the people she’d helped? I wanted her to know that I learned so much from her. Even when she was lying there on her last day she was teaching me that life is too short to not enjoy it, to hold grudges, or spend too much time over thinking things. I only hope that she is as proud of me right now as I am of her.
This picture resembles mostly how I remember my mom looking from my childhood.
These 3 pictures were taken fourth of July weekend in the summer of 2005 before we found out she was sick. She did have cancer at this time. We just didn’t know it. It was the last carefree time we spent with her.
She passed away right before midnight on August 6th 2006, but hospice didn’t arrive until after mid-night so the official date is listed as 8/7/06. We spread her ashes on what would have been her 50th birthday on October 25th that same year. We went to Steeplechase Pier in Brooklyn where she grew up and raised us kids until I was almost a teenager.